The Big Idea: Max Gladstone
Sometimes reality reads like fiction. And then that reality can inspire fiction. Just ask Max Gladstone about this, and how recent yet almost unbelievable events gave him the the impetus for at least two books, including his newest, Two Serpents Rise.
Do you remember the day the gods died?
You must. I mean, five years or so back this grand cataclysm tore through an immaterial plane of existence adjacent to our own. Every few days, it seemed, another ostensibly immortal being that took sustenance from the faith and work of its followers and priests died. Those that survived starved themselves lean. Afterward, as the world sunk into recession, the surviving immortals withdrew to Olympus, hoarding the remnants of their power and licking their wounds. To this day we fault them for their retreat from Earth.
Oh, and let’s not forget the part where a bunch of hardworking folks who communicate in arcane jargon derived from ancient languages spent thousands of billable hours raising fallen deities from the dead.
At least that’s how the 2008 recession and its aftermath looked to yours truly, a half-crazed fantasy novelist recently back in the US from a few years teaching in the Chinese countryside. That bit of extra distance meant that on returning I read America like a genre book—trying to make sense of the world from clues I was given as I went along.
And the world’s pretty strange, when you think about it for a second. What’s the Kool-Aid Man but a totemic representation of a vast, inscrutable, and horrifying reality? What is an org chart but a mandala made with PowerPoint? Mickey Mouse’s many tentacles spread from Hong Kong to Provo, Utah, and His castles rise over foreign lands. Don’t even get me started on Collateralized Debt Offerings and Special Purpose Entities.
I couldn’t think of another book dealing with the weird magic of the modern economy, so I decided to write one. Well. More than one. I like telling complete stories in independent books—but as I fleshed out the idea I realized that what I really needed was a mosaic, a number of books showing different angles on a complex reality.
The fact that this approach let me live out my huge writer-crush on Terry Pratchett was a pleasant coincidence.
The first book in the Craft Sequence, Three Parts Dead, came out last year—the story of a junior associate at an international necromancy firm who’s trying to resurrect a dead god. The main character in that book, Tara, is a fledgling necromancer, which gives her status and power in the world of the books, so long as she’s willing to bill crazy hours and steer clear of certain moral judgments about her less savory clients.
I wanted to change things up a bit with my next book, Two Serpents Rise. I decided for starters to show the world through the eyes of a character with less power. Caleb is a risk manager for a water utility run by an undead god-killing wizard. Caleb has skills of his own, and he’s good at his job, but he can’t raise zombies, throw fireballs, or peel off peoples’ faces when needs must. He’s stuck with his wits, his fists, and some limited ability to manipulate the magic around him. Where the world looks more like a fantasy setting for Tara, for Caleb it’s a horror setting—he’s a small guy trying to chart his course through a world full of forces that could crush him if they noticed him.
Unfortunately, some of those forces have him in their sights.
I also wanted to show a city living with its past. In Three Parts Dead, the main characters wanted to raise a dead god before His death affected his city. Stopping crisis was the point. Two Serpents Rise takes place in a city where the gods have been dead for a while—kicked out, in fact. And their world went on. The sacred ball game became a spectator sport. Real estate speculators converted temples to art galleries and office space. The physical world became an object of exploitation and manipulation, rather than the subject of a relationship with the divine. Most people like it that way.
But even though the gods of Caleb’s city died a long time ago, their followers remain, and the dead have a nasty habit of sneaking up on you.
So that’s the Big Idea—an interpretation more than a ‘what if,’ an attempt to make sense of confusion by recasting it, and to do so in a way that let me play with zombies, lich kings, feathered serpents, and deep magic from before the dawn of time. Because it’s good to have a point, and it’s good to have fun, but it’s better to have fun and a point at once.